From The Editors: The Tyranny of Our Attire
On a 1906 visit to washington, d.c., Mark Twain flouted the conventions of that altogether conventional town by donning—in December—white flannels for an afternoon appearance as a guest speaker before Congress, where he rigorously defended his unseasonable ensemble. “I have found that when a man reaches the advanced age of 71 years as I have, the continual sight of dark clothing is likely to have a depressing effect upon him,” he explained. “Light-colored clothing is more pleasing to the eye and enlivens the spirit.
“Are not clothes,” he continued, “intended primarily to preserve dignity and also to afford comfort to the wearer? Now I know of nothing more uncomfortable than the present-day clothes of men. The finest clothing made is a person’s own skin, but, of course, society demands something more than this.” The best-dressed person that Twain had ever seen was an inhabitant of the Sandwich Islands for whom formal attire consisted of nothing more than a pair of spectacles and “the clothing with which God had provided him.”
This being the case, one feels compelled to consider why, even after the Fall of Man, we should so readily have surrendered this most perfect of costumes. Science teaches us that we shed our warm and glossy primate fur only to then wrap ourselves in rough, chafing layers of malodorous hide, mammoth’s wool, and snakeskin, but this hardly seems an efficient trade-off, and certainly not one to be effected by the supremely rational machinery of natural selection. Though Darwinists assert that our furless state came about from the profuse sweating in which we engaged while chasing our prehistoric prey across the savannas, one struggles to understand how this development benefited, say, the Eskimos, whose womenfolk were compelled to chew on leather to imbue it with a suppleness conducive to comfort when placed next to the skin. Indeed, the biblical claims for clothing as a form of divine punishment carry far more persuasive force.
The progression from the medieval hair shirt to the so-called Little Lord Fauntleroy costumes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries certainly bears out this argument. The latter in particular could not have been more effectively devised by an offended Creator for the punishment of men, though these in fact were the invention of one Frances Hodgson Burnett, authoress of the story from which these garments took their name. Mrs. Burnett had these velvet outfits tailored for her son, a curly haired and “manly little chap” named Vivian on whom the fictional Cedric is based.
Only heavenly wrath could explain the zeal with which the female population on both sides of the Atlantic embraced both the narrative and the fashion, spawning catalogs of garments representing variations on the androgynous Fauntleroy theme. This craze, which lasted 40 years, condemned generations of boys to suffer in velvet short pants, lace collars, ribbons, broad sailor hats, and, in the most desperate cases, sausage curls.
Still, history offers some support for the selective advantages of clothing. Fashion has always served as a practical accessory to political ambitions. Few sovereigns, however, have transformed personal glitter into gloire on the scale of Louis XIV, whose manner prefigured that of Little Lord Fauntleroy. If Louis was the state, then 17th-century France represented the consummate political catwalk, on which courtiers dressed with an eye to flattering the king’s costume for the day. One of these latter sartorial confections sported bulbous diamond buttons that reportedly cost 2 million francs, and le Roi Soleil earned this humble epithet when he played the part of the sun in a ballet wearing a tunic of pure gold capped by a sunburst of ostrich plumes.
Fur, of course, was a favorite of Louis’—a luxury that harks back, perhaps, to that vanished aboriginal coat. Or this predilection may have stemmed from a more immediate shedding: The elaborate Baroque wigs that he donned—and that became the fashion well into the next century—are said to have been inspired by the Sun King’s loss of his own natural locks to illness. Whether this was a divine reminder to Louis of Original Sin or a stroke of Darwinian fate to be exploited, Louis’ style nevertheless achieved final extinction with the passing of the Fauntleroy suit, and however less depressing to the eye Twain may have found the king in comparison to the Congress of his day, we may be grateful for this act of God—or of nature.
Senior Vice President, Editorial